The answer isn’t as simple as you think it is.
Earlier this week, the ESA announced that it will be cancelling E3 this year, in light of the spread of the coronavirus, now officially declared a global epidemic by the WHO. This news wasn’t that surprising – we’ve seen a lot of things be impacted by the coronavirus, with Sony pulling out of PAX East, and GDC 2020 being delayed, Nintendo Switch shipments being affected, and even widespread speculation that the launch of next generation consoles may be delayed because of the impact this virus has had on the global production and shipment chain.
So yes, it would have been more surprising if E3 wasn’t cancelled (and we will probably see other events this year, such as Gamescom and Tokyo Game Show, see similar fates, if this virus is not brought under control any time soon).
In and of itself, this would probably be a big blow; however, this year, it just felt like the logical culmination of events that we had been seeing developing for months now. As an example, Sony confirmed earlier this year it will not be going back to E3 in 2020 either, instead opting to share information via its own events and channels. This was followed by news of prominent games media personality Geoff Keighley announcing he would also not be producing his annual E3 show this year, and iam8bit, the production company behind E3, pulling out as well. In other words, we had seen E3 2020 slowly spiral the drain for a while now. The coronavirus induced cancellation seemed more like a formal confirmation of what we all knew was coming than anything else.
All of these developments have sparked a debate that we have started to see crop up more and more frequently, ever since Nintendo first announced it would be skipping a live show at E3 back in 2013, through to Sony’s total departure from the event the last two years: is this it for E3? Is the show dying? Is the format obsolete?
While many will try to tell you yes (or no), the truth is far more nuanced, and cannot be answered in a single one word sentence. E3 has multiple dimensions to it: it’s a trade show, it’s a networking opportunity, and it’s a show where game companies share their plans with the consumer audience. Most people, of course, are concerned with only that last metric, the press shows and the game announcements, and all that – but that’s only a fraction of what E3 is about.
But let’s talk about that metric first, because it’s the easiest to deal with and answer. As far as the consumer-facing side of E3 goes, it is on its deathbed, and on its way out. This is undeniable. Nintendo was surprisingly prescient when it foresaw the power of social media to share news in the internet age, and over the last decade, we have seen the prominence of E3 be diminished at an alarming rate, with more and more companies choosing to make announcements at their own events, or on their own terms, using social media to control the messaging. E3 as a stage show, then, is simply archaic and obsolete in today’s day and age, a relic of the pre-internet stage, that doesn’t really have a purpose anymore.
Back when our primary way of getting news was monthly magazines, it made sense to have one big centralized event where all the news could be shared in a consolidated, industry-wide hub. But when the internet makes it possible for information to be shared literally within seconds, there really isn’t a need to have an annual pre-determined show to share information anymore. The success of the Nintendo Direct format (which has spawned a great many imitators from all companies) is ultimately proof of how little E3 is needed now.
If we were to judge it purely on this front, it would be very easy to say that E3 is dying, and unneeded any more. However, as mentioned before, there is more to the show than just that – and that’s where E3 is harder to replace, even in an internet age.
The biggest utility E3 has is as an industry trade show. This is where, annually, game companies share their plans for their upcoming products and lineups with retailers, allowing them to make orders, allocate inventories, procure shelf space, and so on. While, again, dedicated game retailers – and indeed, just physical retail as a whole – have declined dramatically in the internet age, they’re still a major force, accounting for a huge portion of the market. In other words, you need to coordinate your products’ rollout with them (not doing so means you don’t get shelf space with the retailer, which can be catastrophic). On that front, E3 is still paramount.
Theoretically, each major company can have its own internal trade event with retailers to achieve this same end (and many have and do), but in the end, that’s a lot of companies and a lot of retailers – the whole calendar would be occupied with a bunch of these smaller events, all trying to do the same thing collectively that one big event already did otherwise. This is where E3’s utility is unmatched, and at least as far as this goes, it is unlikely that E3 is going away any time soon. If nothing else, E3’s status as the premier trade show for the games industry in North America might keep it alive even when the consumer facing side is clearly circling the drain.
The final dimension E3 functions on is as a networking event for the industry. This, again, is something you would think is less important in the age of social media and the internet, but E3 has continued to be surprisingly important on this front in today’s day and age. Multiple developers, especially smaller indie developers, use E3 as an opportunity to scout talent, partnerships, and publishers. Platform holders often make key plans based on people they contact (or who contact them) at E3.
And yes, sure, you can assume that these people will just email or tweet or whatever Nintendo or Sony or Microsoft or EA now. But the thing is, hundreds of thousands of people do that – and you are far likelier to get lost in the crowd than to stand out in it. E3 is an event which is for this – so you know you are guaranteed to get some time with the people you want time with, at least as long as you have an appointment.
So in the end, what it comes down to is the consumer-facing side of E3 – the one we all care about – really and truly dying. It might still soldier on over the next few years, maybe beyond that, but its prominence will continue to decline as more and more publishers realize they are best off controlling the messaging and using the internet to make their announcements. However, E3 itself and as a whole isn’t going anywhere – it is far too big and far too important as a trade show and networking event. Until the internet completely obliterates traditional retail and networking, E3 will stick around – even if in a much diminished form.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.